Papal Abdications Through History

emblem of the Papacy: Triple tiara and keys Fr...

emblem of the Papacy: Triple tiara and keys Français : emblème pontifical Italiano: emblema del Papato Português: Emblema papal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You all know how much I enjoy history, so you knew this was coming, didn’t you? The history of Popes who resigned is a quite short one, and for different reasons (we think) in each case. I’m no Catholic (or medieval) scholar, so I had to find some material, and it is very interesting. I don’t have much to add however, so we’ll call this more of a compendium than anything else.

First of all from Donald S. Prudlo writing in Crisis magazine via Catholicism Pure and Simple, on the significance of when and where Pope Benedict’s abdication took place:

In shocking news that quickly demonstrated the ongoing relevance of medieval historians, Pope Benedict announced that he will lay down his governance of the Church of Rome at the end of this month.  Such an event has not happened for nearly 600 years when his predecessor, Gregory XII, sacrificed himself in 1415 to bring an end to the Great Western Schism.  It is appropriate, in an historical Church, to look back.  Rooted in tradition, we see that we do have the resources to cope with such a stunning and in some ways heartbreaking announcement.Benedict XVI used the occasion of a canonization consistory to make this most momentous of announcements.  In canonizing the pope exercises his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians in an extraordinary way, making this consistory a solemn moment for such an announcement.  The consistory was held with the cardinals, who will govern the Church in a sede vacante, therefore it was highly fitting for the Pope to address this message to them.  It was also fitting in such a moment that the Pontiff expressed himself in the universal language of the Catholic Church: Latin.  Just as he had in the first address to his Cardinals after election, Benedict underscored the universality of the Church spread throughout the world, by speaking its catholic language at this most solemn of moments.  Further, in fixing the date for the canonization after his own resignation, Benedict emphasized the continuity of the Petrine office, for on 12 May, we will have a new supreme pontiff to undertake that blessed ceremony.

It is well too to see if we can glean any significance from the saints to be honored.  Two are holy foundresses of female orders.  After his resignation, Benedict will retire to such a monastery to live out his life in prayer and reflection, and indeed, in penance for the Church that he loves so much.  Also to be canonized are Antonio Primaldi and the 800 martyrs of Otranto, brutally killed in an Ottoman raid in 1480, when they refused to convert to Islam.

By the end of the 1470s Mehmed II, called “The Conqueror” was preparing a death blow to Europe.  Having taken the impregnable city of Constantinople, and having pacified the Balkans, his fleet was freely sailing the Mediterranean.  Having taken “New Rome” he set his sights on “Old Rome.”  He launched a raiding party in 1480 on the maritime city of Otranto, at the heel of Italy’s boot.  Thousands were massacred in what was probably an expedition meant to instill terror in seafaring Italy.  After a two week siege, the city fell. The civil and religious leaders of the city were either beheaded or sawed in half.  800 of the leading men of the town refused to convert to Islam and were sentenced to death.  Led by Antonio Primaldi, who had been a spokesman for the group, they were beheaded, one by one on a hill outside town.  Antonio and his townsmen had, in reality, saved Europe for the unstoppable Mehmed II died at only 49 the next year, frustrating Ottoman plans for expansion.

Continue reading Pope Benedict’s Resignation in Historical Context .

And just because it is interesting here is a short history of the Popes who have resigned from the Catholic Encyclopedia

Ferraris declares that the Pope should make his abdication into the hands of the College of Cardinals, as to that body alone pertains the election of his successor. For whilst it is true that the Cardinals did not bestow the papaljurisdiction upon him, yet they designated him as the successor of Peter, and they must be absolutely certain that he has renounced the dignity before they can validly proceed to the election of another pontiff.

Church history furnishes a number of examples of papal abdications. Leaving aside the obscure case of Pope Marcellinus (296-308) adduced by Pezzani, and the still more doubtful resignation of Pope Liberius (352-366) which some historians have postulated in order to solve the perplexing position of Pope Felix II, we may proceed to unquestioned abdications.

Pope Benedict IX (1033-44), who had long caused scandal to the Church by his disorderly life, freely renounced the pontificate and took the habit of amonk. He repented of his abdication and seized the papal throne again for a short time after the death of Pope Clement II, but he finally died in a private station.

His immediate successor, Pope Gregory VI (1044-46) furnishes another example of papal abdication. It was Gregory who had persuaded Benedict IX to resign the Chair of Peter, and to do so he had bestowed valuable possessions upon him. After Gregory had himself become Pope, this transaction was looked on by many as simoniacal; and although Gregory’s intentions seem to have been of the best, yet it was deemed better that he too should abdicate the papal dignity, and he did so voluntarily.

The classic example of the resignation of a Pope is that of St. Celestine V (1294). Before his election to the pontificate, he had been a simple hermit, and his sudden elevation found him unprepared and unfit for his exalted position. After five months of pontificate, he issued a solemn decree in which he declared that it was permissible for the Pope to abdicate, and then made an equally solemn renunciation of the papacy into the hands of the cardinals. He lived two years after his abdication in the practice of virtues which afterwards procured his canonization. Owing to the troubles which evil minded persons caused his successor, Boniface VIII, by their theories about the impossibility of a valid abdication of the papal throne, Boniface issued the above-cited decree to put the matter at rest for all time.

The latest instance of a papal resignation is that of Pope Gregory XII (1406-15). It was at the time of the Great Schism of the West, when two pretenders to the Chair of Peter disputed Gregory’sright, and rent the faithful into three so-called “obediences”. To put an end to the strife, the legitimate Pope Gregory renounced the pontificate at the General Council of Constance in 1415.

It is well known that Pope Pius VII (1800-23), before setting out for Paris to crown Napoleon in 1804, had signed an abdication of the papal throne to take effect in case he were imprisoned in France (De Montor).

Finally, a valid abdication of the Pope must be a free act, hence a forced resignation of the papacy would be null and void, as more than one ecclesiastical decree has declared.

Pretty interesting subject, isn’t it?


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2 Responses to Papal Abdications Through History

  1. Jack Curtis says:

    It seems that Popes don’t just up and quit without a reason. No more I suppose, has Benedict.


    • NEO says:

      I’m sure there is a reason, not so sure we’ll ever know what it is.


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